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Manufacturing, men and disability

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Thursday, 6 June 2013


A leader from the Men’s Shed association has expressed a degree of concern at what he sees as the growing youth of some of his new members.

Paul Sladdin, the Victorian head of the Men’s Shed association, says that while he is pleased that the organisation is clearly providing space for more men to interact and talk about their emotional difficulties, he notes that there is an increase in younger members which may reflect the realities of the job market.

“Over the last five years we have seen a steady growth in members aged in their thirties and forties,” said Sladdin, noting this trend is much greater in places like Ireland where there has been a sharp economic downturn.

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Men’s Shed has experienced phenomenal growth since its inception in the mid 1990s to combat men’s mental health problems. This Australian innovation now numbers more than one thousand branches across Australasia and Europe.

Sladdin’s comments come in the wake of the closures of the Ford manufacturing plants in Victoria, announced last month and set to cost at least 1200 jobs by 2016, but likely to be much more when suppliers and support services are taken into account.

Julia Gillard met some of the workers on the weekend and announced 15 million dollars to help them find work again, but with the long-term decline of blue-collar work, their prospects are grim.

Most of the retrenched workers will find themselves unemployed in a very different world from when they started, one where opportunities for the low and semi-skilled are dwindling, for they are being either automated or outsourced.

Like the Men’s Shed association, the death of Ford in Australia is bittersweet for my job in mental health. The broader trend signals more work for my practice, situated in Western Sydney and a regular provider of services for men discarded by the manufacturing industry, either through injury or retrenchment. Most have great difficulty retraining after several decades fulfilling a particular role.

The change of task is symbolic of an entire change in identity.

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This is in an age where we depend upon our jobs for providing us with a greater share of our identity, a steady upwards trend as we shifted from working with clans on the land to being wage slaves in offices or factories. As a result, we are more vulnerable to experiencing any fissures in the workplace as direct insults upon our sense of self.

The Ford closures are symbolic of men, in particular, undergoing a tremendous displacement from modern economic trends. In the Western world, it can be seen among the traditionally white Anglo-Saxon working class, for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is slowly but surely becoming a distant memory. It is been replaced by casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work is being feminised, a development worsened by ruptures in the financial world.

This is captured in a report by the Brookings Institution about trends among the working class in the Western world.

Sladdin also believes this kind of underemployment is more commonly the issue confronting some of his younger members in Men’s Shed.

It is no wonder that a growing burden of our disability pension is related to mental health, which now comprises a third of all claims, a tripling over two decades according to government figures from 2011. A generation ago they would have been related to bad backs, but they are now troubled minds.

In reality, the growing number of people who come off the books of job search agencies and therefore our participation rate looking for work, are increasingly preferring the label of disabled to underqualified or incapable. Furthermore, it is happening at an earlier age, with psychiatric claims for disability three times more likely to occur in people aged in their thirties or forties.

It is perhaps fitting that the Prime Minister has just opened the headquarters of Disability Care in Geelong adjacent to the Ford plant.

Economic Man is slowly being replaced by a Casualised or Unemployed Depressed Man.

If the male species did not have it bad enough already, as best illustrated by a female writer at The Atlantic in an article triumphantly titled “The End of Men”, consider that disorders like autism and ADHD, both of which have grown exponentially in the past two decades, are often referred to by experts as a kind of extreme maleness, because of difficulty regulating emotions, lack of empathy and a trend towards acting out distress physically. Boys diagnosed with the disorders outnumber girls by a factor of four.

For all the public heat about misogyny and discrimination against women, it seems that the Y chromosome is the one in real crisis and at both ends of the life cycle.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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